Rehab For Dogs?

Some owners turn to physical therapy to manage chronic pain, avoid costly surgery

Hartley does balancing exercises and gets a massage as part of her physical therapy at River Canine Rehabilitation in Springfield, Missouri. Canine rehabilitation is a growing field that, in cases like Hartley's, can be used as an alternative to surgery.

When Bryan Lindsay’s miniature dachshund ruptured a vertebral disc that paralyzed her hind end last April, he faced a choice: pay $7,500 for an operation to remove pressure from her spinal cord, with no guarantee that she would ever walk again, or try twice-weekly rehab for $80 a session.

He and his wife, Stephanie, opted for the rehab, which included laser treatments to stimulate healing, workouts on an underwater treadmill and acupuncture.

“I was really skeptical at first, but to see her progress over those next six weeks was astonishing,” says Bryan, who lives in Willard, Missouri. “The first time, they had to support her back end on the treadmill. A week or so later, she was walking but limping. The last time, she was just trotting along.” The 3-year-old dachshund, Hartley, suffered from intervertebral disc disease, a common, hereditary disease in dachshunds. She is now nearly normal, with only a slight “swagger” to remind Bryan of the trauma she endured.

Canine rehab is a growing field. This year Americans are expected to spend almost $19 billion on veterinary care, including rehab, up from about $15 billion five years ago, according to the American Pet Products Association in Stamford, Connecticut.

Rehab is now routinely recommended for dogs after debilitating surgery and injuries, and also is increasingly being used as an alternative to surgery and as a method to stimulate elderly dogs’ brains and give them a sense of renewed purpose.

“Awareness has increased tremendously, and it has become quite mainstream,” says Dr. Darryl Millis, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville and director of the arthritis and sports medicine program at the college’s Veterinary Medical Center. “The expectations of clients are to have rehabilitation on their pets similar to what they might have for their own injury or surgery.”

Dr. Marti Drum gives Wishbone, a 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier, ultrasound therapy to help heal his fractured femur at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center.

There are several organizations devoted to promoting canine rehab research and education as well as certifying rehabbers. The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in Camas, Washington, founded about a decade ago, offers board certification based on advanced training and a rigorous exam. To date, ACVSMR has certified 147 rehabbers in the U.S. and 235 worldwide. The University of Tennessee’s Canine Rehabilitation Certificate Program has graduated 2,200 vets, vet techs, vet nurses and physical therapists for humans over its 20 years in existence.

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